Aug. 16, 2004
By JOSH DUBOW
AP Sports Writer
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) - A short walk around the California campus this summer was all Geoff McArthur needed as proof of how much Golden Bears football has changed since his freshman year.
A program that won only one game in 2001 and has the longest Rose Bowl drought of any Big Ten or Pac-10 team is finally getting noticed at a school more known for its protests than its passing.
"People come up to us and tell us where we're ranked and how good we're supposed to be," said McArthur, Cal's star receiver. "It's like we're at a national level now. It's crazy. Some of the new guys think it's always been like this. Hopefully we can keep it up because it can easily go back the other way."
After two years of exceeding expectations under coach Jeff Tedford, the Bears would be successful if they could just meet them this season. Cal was ranked 13th in the preseason poll, its highest preseason ranking and best at any time since finishing the 1991 season at No. 8.
That has Cal fans talking about the possibility of making the Rose Bowl for the first time since Joe Kapp led the Bears there after the 1958 season. Boy, what a difference from the 1-10 team Tedford took over.
Instead of convincing his players that they actually can compete, Tedford's job this season is making sure the preseason publicity doesn't go to their heads.
"It's not what people are expecting of them. It's what they expect of themselves. That's the key," said Tedford, who went 15-11 his first two years. "If we go into this thing worried about what people think about us or what people expect of us, that's a tough thing to be under all the time. What we expect from each other on a day to day basis, that does matter."
There's plenty of reason for optimism for a team that's looking to put together three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1950-52.
The Bears feature a high-powered offense that averaged 40.6 points per game during a 5-1 stretch to end last season. They return an electric passing duo, with McArthur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
McArthur caught 85 passes for 1,504 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and ranked second in the nation to No. 3 overall NFL draft pick Larry Fitzgerald with 107.4 yards receiving per game.
McArthur will benefit from Rodgers' experience. The junior college transfer was inconsistent last season despite passing for 2,903 yards and 19 touchdowns. Another year in Tedford's quarterback-tailored system should help Rodgers show the improvement he needs for Cal to contend with No. 1 Southern California in the Pac-10.
"He really showed a lot of progress by the end of last year," Tedford said. "His confidence level was evident. He really looked like he had command of the offense."
Rodgers' inconsistency showed in the Bears' biggest game last season, a 34-31 triple-overtime win over eventual national champion USC. Rodgers led Cal to a 21-7 lead in the first half but was pulled in the third quarter after he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
The Bears also had an up-and-down season, following up the win against the Trojans with losses to Oregon State and UCLA. They also lost to Utah and Colorado State but beat Virginia Tech 52-49 in the Insight Bowl.
"Beating USC was a really good feeling, but those six other losses bring you down a bit," said defensive back Ryan Gutierrez, who anchors an improved secondary with All-Pac-10 selection Donnie McCleskey. "We feel like we can play with anybody. We feel like this year we'll be able to get over the hump and not finish with those six losses."
For the Bears to achieve their goal of a conference title, they once again will have to deal with USC - this time on the road. But before meeting the Trojans on Oct. 9, Cal has a difficult early stretch to navigate.
Four of the first five games are on the road, including trips to Air Force and Southern Mississippi and the Pac-10 opener at Oregon State the week before the showdown in Los Angeles.
"We have to take care of business before USC or we could lose our chance to achieve our goals. We need to be totally focused," Rodgers said. "We need to be more consistent and eliminate some of the highs and lows we had last year. We can't play down to the level of our opponent like we did sometimes last year. We need to play like we did against USC and in the bowl game every week."
If the Bears do, even more positive publicity should follow.
"You want to be noticed and you want to be recognized," Gutierrez said. "It's a nice feeling but at the same time we have a lot of work to do."